Paul Polman has been the CEO of Unilever, the world’s third biggest consumer goods manufacturer, since January 2009. Polman has embedded sustainability at the core of Unilever’s business as a result of his belief in sustainable and equitable capitalism. He believes that business has to learn to be successful while contributing to society and supporting environmental sustainability. Under his leadership Unilever has embedded the three pillars of sustainability into its corporate structure and business strategy. This is being achieved through the implementation of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan. This plan covers Unilever’s entire supply chain and aims to double Unilever sales while reducing its overall environmental footprint and increasing its positive social impact.

Polman is aiming to be a leader, not only for his company, but for the industry by illustrating the business case for sustainability through the Sustainable Living Plan. “If we hit all our targets on this plan, but no-one else follows suit, we will have failed miserably,” says Polman. “We are trying to show that you can be successful as a business and at the same time show the financial community this should be one of the better drivers for their investments.”

Polman hopes Unilever’s actions will help move companies away from a focus on short-term profit and reconnecting business to a sense of purpose. To support this objective, under Polman’s guidance, Unilever stopped publishing industry standard quarterly profit (or earning) reports and moved to publishing revenue-only reports. Polman told stakeholders, “If you buy into this long-term value model, which is equitable, which is shared, which is sustainable, then come and invest with us.”

Polman has acknowledged his action originally caused controversy among Unilever shareholders but stated, “If you believe in something you have to fight for that and have the courage to take the tougher decisions that come with it.”

Polman vision appears to be working, the share price of Unilever has doubled since he has been CEO.

Polman plays an active role with global sustainability organizations: he is the incoming Chair of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and serves on the Board of the UN Global Compact.


Enlightened Leadership

Have committed, values-based executive leaders who position the business for short and long-term success by driving the company to adapt to – and influence – structural social, economic and environmental trends, and who foster organizational capacity for change and innovation to create sustainable business models and solutions for the future.